NHL On NBCSN: What’s behind Bryan Rust’s breakout season

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After a two-year detour the Pittsburgh Penguins have rediscovered their championship identity. They are playing fast, they revamped their defense to add mobility, and they have a balanced lineup (when healthy) with four lines that can contribute. They enter Tuesday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) as one of the league’s best teams and it is the usual suspects at the top leading the way for them.

Sidney Crosby has played like the best player in the world. Evgeni Malkin is rebounding from a down year in 2018-19 and is playing some of the best hockey of his career. Kris Letang has been great at the top of a dramatically improved defense, and Jake Guentzel was on track for a second straight 40-goal season before his injury. They also have had an infusion of young talent into the lineup (John Marino, Jared McCann, Dominik Kahun, and Teddy Blueger) to make an impact.

The surprising star of this team so far, however, has been the breakout performance of veteran forward Bryan Rust.

He enters Tuesday’s game with 21 goals and 43 total points, both of which are already new career highs. He has done that in only 35 games. That is an 82-game pace for 49 goals and 100 points!

Let’s dig into this.

Continuation of his 2018-19 finish

Rust has always been a valuable part of the Penguins’ lineup since becoming a regular in the middle of the 2015-16 season. He is an excellent defensive forward, he brings a ton of speed to the lineup, and he has always been able to chip in offense. He also has the versatility to fit into any role the team needs, whether it be as a first-line winger, a penalty killer, or a third-line winger. That solid all-around play earned him a four-year, $14 million contract extension that began a year ago.

But 30 games into that contract he scored just one goal, and it was easy to conclude that he was one of the players general manager Jim Rutherford was talking about when he criticized the team’s performance early on and that maybe some players had become content with their Stanley Cup rings and big pay days. But starting with a game on Dec. 12, 2018, Rust has been one of the most productive forwards in the entire league. He finished the 2018-19 season with 17 goals in his final 42 games (a 33-goal pace over 82 games), and in his past 77 games dating back to last season has 38 goals and 71 total points.

The Malkin effect?

Rust has spent a significant portion of his ice-time this season playing on a line next to Malkin, and there is no doubt that has helped give his production a boost. Those two have been magic together this season, and were even better when paired next to Guentzel before his injury. While it is fair to point that out, it should also be noted that a significant portion of Rust’s 5-on-5 ice-time over the previous three seasons has come on a line next to either Malkin or Crosby. So it’s not like this is the first time he’s ever played with a superstar center.

The biggest factor at play…

He is getting a more significant role in the offense

With Phil Kessel traded and all of the injuries (including Rust himself) they dealt with in the first half, the Penguins needed to someone to step in a top-line role. While Rust had seen a lot of top-line minutes in previous years, he has received consistent top-line minutes this season. That has been his role from the minute he returned to the lineup, and it has not only resulted in more time with Malkin, it has also simply resulted in more ice-time overall.

Entering play on Tuesday his ice-time average is a career-high 19:54 per game. That is a four minute per game jump from any of his previous seasons in the NHL. More ice-time means more opportunities. More opportunities more shots. All of that together means more goals.

While he has seen a slight boost to his shooting percentage (19.2 percent this season versus 12.4 percent the previous three seasons) the increased shot volume (3.1 shots per game versus 1.88 the previous three years) is probably the biggest driving factor here, and more ice-time has played a significant role in that.

The power play opportunity

Before this season Rust had played just 92 minutes on the power play in his entire career (22 seconds per game, mostly on the second unit) and had just five total power play points. This season? In 35 games he has already played 80 minutes on the power play and as of Tuesday has five goals and 12 total points on the power play.

Big picture, what you are seeing here this season is a talented player have the perfect confluence of events come together for a career year: A slight bump in shooting percentage, more ice-time, more ice-time with a great player, and an opportunity to play a meaningful role on the power play.

You should not expect him to maintain a 50-goal, 100-point pace forever, but if he keeps getting this sort of ice-time and opportunity there is every reason to believe he can continue to exceed his previous performances.

Gord Miller, Mike Milbury and AJ Mleczko will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET, hosted by Kathryn Tappen and analysts Keith Jones and Ben Lovejoy.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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